/ 17 September 2021

The ghosts of Memphis: The good, the bad, the rock ’n soul

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A mural in Memphis depicting its musical legacy, and its complicated place in history as the site of Dr King’s assassination. (Photo: Fred de Vries)

Memphis is a city of ghosts — good and bad, musical and political. The ghostly business commences as soon as you drive into town, cruising along Isaac Hayes Memorial Highway, a tribute to the soul singer with that ebony voice who died in 2008. You might then want to visit Graceland, the estate once owned by Elvis, which means you’ll take the Elvis Presley Boulevard. 

Next, the Memphis Rock ’n’ Soul Museum can be found via BB King Boulevard. And if you happen to be looking for references to the American Civil War, there’s Forrest Park (now rechristened Health Sciences Park). This is where the controversial Southern general and first Ku Klux Klan leader, Nathan Bedford Forrest, is buried. 

Once you’ve finished there, you can pop in at the nearby Sun Studio, where blues, soul and country had some very fruitful encounters in the 1950s, giving the world a wild new kind of music called rock ’n roll and involving Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Presley, who had a legendary joint jam session here in 1956.

Drive one block down and you’ll get to Dr ML King Jr Avenue. Forty-four years passed before America’s most famous civil rights activist finally received this tribute from the city where he was assassinated on 4 April 1968. As I cruise through town, my Memphis mission is clear: music and murder; or, the end of the multiracial dream.

Memphis, with its population of more than 650 000, of whom 60% are black, is a city of contradictions. Until well into the sixties, when most of the Deep South was experiencing blatant racism, black and white musicians shared the stage here. That is more than remarkable; as music writer Robert Gordon observes in his book It Came From Memphis, this city was built on firm racist foundations, with inhabitants who had absolutely no qualms about using the “N word”. 

But it was black people who had made Memphis affluent, picking the cotton on the Southern plantations, which was traded here. It never occurred to the white citizens of Memphis to thank those “N words” for all the riches and privileges they experienced. As late as 1971, the city council still thought it was a brilliant idea to close the public swimming pools to prevent black children from splashing around in the same cool water as white children. 

Scrawled graffiti in Memphis depicting the figure of a blues man. (Photo: Fred de Vries)

 Rock ’n roll was the antidote — it represented rebellion, sex and boundless energy. “Rock and roll is a response to that word [the ‘N word’],” writes Gordon. “Rock and roll rejected the idea of enforced segregation, mixing cultures as it mixed musical genres.” 

He gives vivid descriptions of the multicultural parties in downtown’s Beale Street and on the other side of the Mississippi River, in West Memphis, where bands such as the Mar-Keys and Mud Boy and the Neutrons sent the punters into a frenzy. Was it white? Was it black? Blues? Soul? Rock ’n roll? Rhythm and blues? Who cared, as long as you could dance, brawl and make out. 

  That multiracial party came to a grinding halt when King was gunned down in the Lorraine Motel on a cloudy spring day in 1968. It feels as if the city still hasn’t come to terms with the shock, as if it suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Compared to Nashville and Atlanta, it’s low on vitality and vibrancy. It looks dingy, feels uncomfortable, full of concrete, with a messy, unattractive skyline. A city full of holes, cut into two by a wide, muddy river. “Barren” and “bleak” are words that spring to mind. 

It reminds me of parts of downtown Johannesburg in the mid-nineties — Commissioner Street, Fox Street — ugly, tricky, but somehow also quite exciting; that is, if you like edgy. Just like Joburg, Memphis feels unfinished, incomplete. But very real. There’s no fake glamour to hide the scars. 

It also reminds me of Rotterdam, especially because of the big river running through it. In the Rotterdam I grew up in, the river was never really part of city life. There were no outdoor terraces, no attractive promenades. A four-lane thoroughfare with nonstop traffic effectively cut the river off from the city centre.

  Something similar has happened in Memphis, which is one of the main ports on the 3 700km-long Mississippi River. It feels as if the city has turned its back on the water. Perhaps that disgruntled attitude has something to do with the role that the river has played in history. 

The famed Stax Recording Company’s studios in Memphis. (Photo: Fred de Vries)

Between 1865 and 1940, the waterway was the main escape route to the North, to St Louis and eventually Chicago, the road travelled by slave descendants who wanted to leave the racist South behind and find work hundreds of miles further upstream, in the factories of Chicago, Detroit and New York. In other words, the Mississippi River played a dual role: first, it brought riches in the form of cotton, then it enabled the departure of young, vital and ambitious black Southerners. 

  If you want tragic stories, Memphis offers plenty. Stroll along the Wolf River, a tributary of the Mississippi, and spare a thought for singer-songwriter Jeff Buckley, who came to Memphis in 1997 at age 30 to find inspiration after the tremendous success of his debut album, Grace. On 29 May he went for a swim. Six days later, his body was found, recognisable only by its purple navel piercing and green toenails. 

Visit Graceland, Elvis Presley’s estate, and gape at all the kitsch in the mansion where the world’s biggest pop star died on 16 August 1977, a lonely soul who had filled his last years with junk food and painkillers. At the Stax Museum, check out the fantastic live footage of soul singer Otis Redding, who died in a plane crash at the age of 26. The last song he recorded was (Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay

 Visit Goner Records, a local record label that specialises in blues punk. Its biggest seller was the very talented and productive Jay Reatard. He too died prematurely. On 13 January 2010 his heart gave up after a fatal dose of booze and drugs. Jay was 29 years old. 

Inevitably, Memphis also has its own 27 Club member: singer-guitarist Chris Bell, who played in the influential power pop band Big Star and composed at least one classic with I Am the Cosmos. Bell, who suffered from depression, crashed his shiny white Triumph TR7 on Poplar Avenue in the early hours of 27 December 1978. Some doubt that it was an accident. 

  Goner Records is my first destination. To get there, I have to drive through predominantly black neighbourhoods with dilapidated houses and men hanging around on street corners or sitting on old chairs and sofas next to broken kitchen appliances in overgrown gardens, a beer within reach.

Cliché? Definitely. But the reason for this depressing early-21st-century tableau is obvious. After the murder of King in 1968 and the riots that followed, worried whites deserted Memphis for a life in suburbia. With the “white flight”, tax money also left the city. The result was that those who could not afford to move were left behind in neighbourhoods with faltering infrastructure and a dismal education record. In the Forbes top 10 most dangerous American cities in 2020, Memphis is number four, with 191 murders the previous year. 

The Lorraine Motel where Dr Martin Luther King Jr took his last breath. (Photo: Fred de Vries)

 Goner Records is run by a youthful-looking fiftysomething who calls himself Eric Oblivian, a name he earned from playing in the rough ’n ready garage trio Oblivians. He was born Eric Friedl in 1966, grew up in California and Hawaii, lived in Boston, and in 1990 moved to Memphis to “start something” with a friend. 

That “something” developed into the Goner empire: record store, record label, merchandise and the annual Gonerfest, which hosts loud, trashy bands from all around the world to rage against whatever they want to rage against, even if it’s a shortage of beer.  

   Goner is the last echo of the comprehensive Memphis blues, rock and soul tradition, which goes back some 70 years, and peaked for the first time in the 1950s and ’60s, thanks to Elvis and Otis. Goner specialises in punk blues, garage rock and rock ’n roll, recorded with the volume unit meters shivering in the red, the opposite of digital perfection and autotune. 

“I like chaotic, crazy sounds,” says Eric, after we have found a small table in the coffee shop next to the record store that’s stuffed from floor to ceiling with vinyl and posters. “And that can be in a blues song too. We used to go see [electric blues artists] RL Burnside and Junior Kimbrough play in Holly Springs, Mississippi. And that would be the craziest … It wouldn’t make any kind of sense. Even in counting, it wouldn’t make sense. It was completely mesmerising blues, out of tune, just perfect. I like the stuff that always sounds wrong but it’s right. That’s kinda our model.”

  That’s Memphis in a nutshell, the ugly duckling of American music history with a “we don’t care” attitude, not bothered by fashions or trends. It sounds wrong, but it feels right.

This is an edited extract, titled One Bullet … from Blues for the White Man: Hearing Black Voices in South Africa and the Deep South by Fred de Vries (Penguin Random House South Africa).